In the second of our ‘Coming of Age’ series, Annette Ong reviews Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 debut novel ‘The Virgin Suicides’. The book was turned into a film of the same name in 1999, which was directed and written by Sofia Coppola.
“What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”
And it was then Cecilia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note… “Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.”
I remember what it’s like to be a thirteen-year-old girl; endless days spent negotiating friendships, plagued by insecurity and desperately trying to fit in. Not exactly the best of times for anyone. At thirteen, you’re stuck right in the middle. Not quite old enough to be considered an adult and not young enough to still be regarded as a child.
Encapsulating this proficiently, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides tells the haunting story of the ethereal Lisbon sisters: Therese (seventeen), Mary (sixteen), Bonnie (fifteen), Lux (fourteen) and Cecilia (thirteen). Their parents, Mr and Mrs Lisbon, are strict Christians, perhaps to the point of fanaticism. They insist their daughters adhere to severe guidelines including dressing modestly, only watching family-friendly Disney films, that they be chaperoned on the few dates they are allowed to go on and attending service regularly. Cecilia’s death is the precursor to her sisters’ suicides.
The novel explores the questions surrounding their deaths through the eyes of the boys who loved them. As the story unfolds, the sense of longing, mystery and isolation become as real as the sisters themselves. The desolation of souls is painfully obvious as Eugenides describes the utter deterioration of the Lisbon house: the smells emitting from its walls, the disintegration of its structure and its slow and steady detachment from the functioning world. There are references to biblical themes, such as the onslaught of fish flies that descend on the town covering everything in their wake, similar to a plague of locusts.
This coming-of-age story deals with the harrowing subject of the sisters’ suicides but also the remembrances of those left behind. Through the hazy filter of memory, the boys who narrate the story become quasi-investigators who piece together their own encounters with the sisters. For the men, then boys, the suicides made an indelible impact on their lives. Their experience with the Lisbon sisters teaches them “the facts of life”; facts that venture beyond the “birds and the bees,” and instead lead them to the sobering truth that only death and grief can teach.
In the end, the boys seem no closer to knowing why the sisters committed suicide and are forced to accept that some questions will never be answered. Eugenides is an accomplished author, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Middlesex. The Virgin Suicides may not be everyone’s cup of tea; in fact, the images stay with you long after you’ve put the book down (the hallmark of great writing for me), but it has some of the most beautiful, romantic and evocative prose I’ve read. It is no easy task to take the subject of youth suicide and convey it with the sensitivity Eugenides has achieved in this novel.